Central station on the last evening in January. Tough to get a cab.
Tougher to find footing on the snow-thick sidewalk. I am headed for the
Oyster Bar, a time capsule of gentility and manners. About seven guys
bundled to the chin in street scarves are in a huddle near the entrance
to the station. They've got problems with the management, and have
scraped enough dough together to rent the eighteen-foot-tall inflatable
rat. New Yorkers know the rat. He moves around the city griping on
command. It's his job to gripe, and strike vague fear in the hearts of
would be diners or just pedestrians — some allergic to shellfish, some
children, some clutching the one good memory of a plate of decent
oysters to their hearts, speeding their steps, stealing away with the
good memories before the rat can trip them up.
head past the disgruntled brave hearts. It is ten degrees and I'm
hauling a trips worth of clothes in a rolling Hello Kitty suitcase
meant for my niece. But I want the oysters. It's been seven years worth
of waiting. The rat looks less menacing than a strike might want. The
rat is a big frat boy who will not know what to do with himself once
everybody goes to work again. My fingers are numb. My mittens are under
a folding chair in a club in Portland, Oregon. I mourn the loss along
with the shunned treat of welcome back oysters.
I grab a pretzel, slather an indecent layer of yellow mustard all over
the thing so that really there isn't a spot for my fingers anywhere.
The salt is so strong it burns my tongue and gums. The salt moves like
little rocks across the metal surface of my molars.
If I was a different sort of person I would turn around and wheel past
the strikers, give them a wave of bare hand, and a knowing smile. My
smile would say, I know. I've been there. I have, and I admire your
spirit, I do, but I am going to have my oysters. I want the experience
of eating them as my grandfather loved to do, in the most beautiful
train station in the country. It's not just the shellfish I'm after you
see, it's the majestic feeling, the one that will wash over me like an
ocean of civility. I walk on toward my fifty dollar room at East End
Studios. A place without a sign, or walkway.
In the morning I haul my bag to the station. I don't even look for the
rat. I grab the bus for Newark, and jump right on my plane to Margarita
Island, off the coast of Venezuela. My friend Daniel picks me up in his
jeep. He's been hiding out on the island since the seventies. Dan makes
the mistake of asking me whether I'm hungry. It isn't his fault, but I
glare at him anyway. We unload at the dock, and I help him with the
fishing nets, bottles of water, and the jars he'll need to collect his
specimens. The pelicans follow us out as I navigate the lagoon. They
unfurl their wings, settling in. Dan has me slow the boat near the
Mangroves, pulling us close in to the banks using the wet roots. He
pulls out a thick silver knife and wrestles with the nubs on the roots.
"Oysters," he says. "You look hungry," Dan tells me. He breaks open a
shell for each of us. Dan points up at a hawk. "Careful," he tells me
smiling, "they'll eat anything."
"Even an eighteen-foot rat?" I wanted to ask, but licked the salt from my lips instead.